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The Worth of Water

by Stephanie Jones
The Worth of Water
Two boys use LifeStraws, instant microbiological water purifiers, while drinking out of a lake in Africa.

In the United States, despite droughts, water is accessible and relatively clean. You can find it in water fountains, sink faucets and store shelves.

But what if you had to walk miles for a sip of clean water?

Six Gabrielino High School students and teacher Michael Winters considered this question and took action. They collected 250,000 glass containers and cans and used the recycling money to purchase LifeStraws, portable water purifiers that function like straws. The filters, which last up to a year, will be sent to developing countries.

For their efforts, the San Gabriel high school won first place in the 2009 Edison Challenge. The environmental science competition is a partnership of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, housed in USC College, and Edison International.

Wrigley Institute director Donal Manahan applauded the school’s LifeStraws project as well as the other entries.

“A wonderful aspect of the Edison Challenge is that it engages students to think about novel solutions to vital issues such as water and energy that greatly impact society,” said Manahan of the program that began in 2006.

Winters said his students were determined to make an impact. They scrambled to pick up 20,000 containers at the Tournament of Roses Parade alone. Their project is ongoing.

“In exchange for recycled containers, we can basically change a person’s life,” said Winters, who also led a Gabrielino High School team to a first-place victory in last year’s Edison Challenge. “By taking our trash and turning it into treasure, we’re giving people the precious resource of water and saving lives.”

Eastshore Elementary School in Irvine also took top honors in the third annual event. The sixth graders set up a composting site on their campus. Team members and teachers from both first-place schools spent a week on Catalina Island, participating in activities at the Wrigley Institute.

In the contest, 61 student-teacher teams submitted original science projects related to energy and the environment. Each project included a lesson plan, community service component, multimedia or creative element, written portfolio of project activities and for high school students, a research proposal.

Winters said he is impressed again and again by the passion of his students.

One, Alice Thai, said the event changed the way she looks at education.

“When we went to a school to give a presentation on our project, students were so eager to learn,” she said. “By teaching them, it made me appreciate my education all the more.”

In Catalina, Thai said she enjoyed snorkeling, hiking and learning about astronomy: “I loved looking at all the stars,” she said.

Winters said that for his students, it wasn’t about winning a contest.

“It’s about changing the world,” he added. “It’s about doing a project and understanding that whether you win a contest or not, you’ve changed the world and made a difference in other people’s lives.”

Second-place winners were Santa Monica High School and Sycamore Canyon School in Newbury Park. Students won a four-day trip to Southern California Edison’s Big Creek hydroelectric facility in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Honorable mentions were awarded to a second team from Gabrielino High School, as well as Oak Park High School in Oak Park, Pacific Coast High School in Tustin, St. John the Baptist School in Baldwin Park and San Gabriel Christian School in San Gabriel. Each of these schools received a laptop computer.

Teachers with teams named as finalists received stipends ranging from $150 to $500.

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